Bring on board the digital 'left behinds'
Similar to Europe, free WiFi connections are also available in China. [Photo/VCG]
Similar to Europe, free WiFi connections are also available in China. In cities and tourist sites, we find free hotspots in hotels, popular restaurants and cafés. Airports and large train stations in China, too, provide free WiFi connection, even if only subscribers to Chinese mobile operators can connect.
According to Wiman app, China has 681,153 free WiFi hotspots. But the state of New York alone has, according to Wiman, more than twice as many free WiFi hotspots: 1,574,124. Yet numbers are not the real issue. The real issue is that, in China, hardly any free WiFi hotspot can be found in villages or towns.
This appears to me as a paradox, as China today is the leading country in terms of digital innovation and manufacturing.
One would expect China to be also leading in terms of free public WiFi hotspots in order to set a good example for the rest of the world to follow. For the time being, the only Chinese example which is referred to in Europe is that of Hong Kong's free public hotspots branded "Wi-Fi.HK", which are available nearly anywhere in the special administrative region. Availability is nevertheless only part of solution. Equally important is public awareness. That's why the Hong Kong authorities have put up posters to raise public awareness, closely linked to which is the need for a common visual identity, allowing visitors to easily spot free hotspots for example.
Statesmen seldom admit copying other nations. But I wouldn't be surprised if Hong Kong's example inspired European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker's visionary initiative of "WiFi4EU" in September 2016. The initiative is aimed at providing financial support for public institutions that want to install cutting edge WiFi networks, so locals and visitors can benefit from it.
A common visual identity, too, has been put forward and the EC is working on a WiFi4EU Single Authentication and Monitoring Service. Moreover, the local authorities benefiting from the scheme will be encouraged to develop and promote their own digital services in areas such as e-government, e-health and e-tourism through a dedicated app. The aim of public hotspots goes beyond providing access to social networks.
Digital literacy is indeed a major reason for the digital divide. However, it will not suffice to teach digital illiterate groups, such as the elderly, to use tablets or smartphones. They will only embrace cyberspace if they see the benefits－for example, if they realize how easy it is for them, when connected to a hotspot, to apply for administrative documents without having to queue up in the town hall.
The main argument in support of WiFi4EU is that free WiFi hotspots are a necessary tool to promote digital literacy among different age groups of people that are not primarily interested in being permanently connected to internet. Therefore, in his 2016 State of the Union speech, Juncker proposed "to equip every European village and every city with free wireless internet access around the main centres of public life by 2020".
A global initiative, with a similar purpose, is the World WiFi Day, organized by Wireless Broadband Alliance. This symbolic initiative aims to showcase current WiFi initiatives of industries and governments to connect the unconnected and remind that public WiFi networks are the most affordable means to the internet.
But WiFi hotspots will also play a key role in allowing the surge of internet of things applications. Given that the internet of things often requires seamless roaming between different hotspots, the industry players have developed the Next Generation Hotspot technology, based on PasspointTM certification and allow Wi-Fi roaming. A key advantage of NGH hotspots, in comparison with mobile communications networks, is that WiFi is operating in unlicensed－and thus free－spectrum bands.
But for the time being, the digital divide remains the main risk to target. Indeed, while cyberspace has revolutionized the way people, businesses and governments communicate and engage with one another, some sections of the population are either excluded from the internet or cannot enjoy any fruits of technological development.
Reducing the digital divide is a priority for Europe and policies have been implemented to bring the "left behinds" on board. Some of these policies may be helpful to China. The European Union and China could therefore learn from each other and become reliable partners in this area, too. Let us work together to build an inclusive, fully connected digital world.
The author is president of ChinaEU.